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Prince's Revolution: From R&B Controversy To Rock Star Status

Music | October 27, 2020

American musician Prince (1958 - 2016) performs onstage at the Ritz during his 'Dirty Mind' tour, New York, New York, March 22, 1981. (Photo by Gary Gershoff/Getty Images)

With "Little Red Corvette" and "Let's Go Crazy," Prince finally hit it big. A musical prodigy, Prince secured a major-label contract while still in his teens and released four decent albums, each selling more than the previous one -- but then came the hit, 1999, followed by the masterpiece, Purple Rain.

Just as there could be no one word to describe Prince himself, no genre can summarize the eccentric music he created throughout multiple decades. Through a combination of R&B, pop, rock, funk, and almost every other type of music, Prince invented a sound that had never been heard before and could never be copied. Prince was also courageous enough to write X-rated lyrics for his songs, despite the condemnation he received. This was parallel to the scandalous journey Prince would embark upon throughout his entire musical career. 

Prince Was Surrounded By Music As A Child

The future star was born on June 7th 1958 in Minneapolis as Prince Rogers Nelson. It was inevitable Prince would be influenced by music as his father John L. Nelson played in a band called Prince Rogers Trio (where Prince got his name) and his mother Mattie Della Shaw was a jazz singer. As a teenager, the 5’1 athlete became enthralled with music and quit the high school basketball team to focus on this new subject He felt no urge to join the school band or take music lessons and instead taught himself piano, guitar, and drums, eventually forming his own band Grand Central. Prince took inspiration from all different kinds of bands especially Sly & The Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix, and Grand Funk Railroad. Although he didn’t realize it at the time, Prince was in the process of creating what would be known as the Minneapolis Sound, what Rolling Stone described as “a hybrid of rock, pop and funk, with blatantly sexual lyrics.”     

Prince Played Every Instrument On His Debut Album 'For You'

Prince on the cover of his 1978 debut, 'For You.' Source: Amazon

When Prince graduated from high school, he immediately set off to achieve his dreams. At age 17, he signed a contract with Warner Bros. under the condition that he could produce his own album and play every instrument. Warner Bros. was blown away as they witnessed Prince captivate everyone with his tremendous talent on each instrument, and they knew something special was coming. Prince worked every single spare minute he had to perfect the album, and his debut For You was released in 1978. The sales were nothing impressive as his marketing skills had yet to match his musical talents, but it was just the beginning of his spectacular career. 

Prince Forms A New Band for 'Prince'

When Prince was releasing his self-titled album in 1979, this time he decided to put together a band. His goal was to unite all listeners of every race and fans of every kind of music as he would be presented as a “genre blurring pop star” whose music could be played on every type of mainstream radio station. At the time, music was usually labeled as “black” or “white,” but Prince wanted to cross both categories. One step that helped him achieve this ambition was putting together what he called a “rainbow band” with all kinds of people: black, white, male, female. This band would represent the diverse and all-encompassing sound he was aiming for. Prince’s strategy clearly appealed to the masses as Prince went platinum and sold over a million copies. 

Prince’s Dirty Mind Is Revealed with 'Dirty Mind'

         Prince’s obsession with sex was exposed when his third album Dirty Mind was released in 1980. In fact, at the young age of 12 Prince was first caught in bed with a girl by his father. The album’s lyrics were becoming raunchier and raunchier, without Prince trying to cover up the true sexual meanings. Dirty Mind merged popular genres of the time such as new wave, R&B, and funk into a completely new sound that had never been heard until this point. Around this time, Prince was also beginning to cross not only racial boundaries, but gender boundaries as well with his androgynous clothing, makeup, and features. This intersexual look would inspire fellow pop stars Michael Jackson and Madonna along with the rest of the typical 1980s style. Dirty Mind was another huge success and featured the hit Uptown which would reach no. 5 on the Billboard charts. 

Prince Becomes An Even Bigger Star with Controversy

Already a rising star, Prince truly became a celebrated icon when he released Controversy in 1981. The album was certified platinum and reached no. 3 on the Billboard R&B charts proving the success Prince now was becoming. Because of the album’s triumph, Prince was now able to perform even larger shows and even opened for The Rolling Stones, although this would be one of the only instances Prince opened up for another band or musician. Controversy also began Prince’s use of the technique of abbreviations to subtly give dirty titles to his songs, including Jack U Off, which Prince would continue doing for the rest of his career.

Source: NPR

In 1982 Prince’s popularity continued to soar as he released his double album 1999, which went on to sell over 3 million copies. The title song about the apocalypse made Prince officially an international sensation. During the early ‘80s, MTV was starting to explode and Prince took advantage by creating a music video for the album’s song Little Red Corvette. At the time, this music video and Michael Jackson’s music video for Billie Jean were the only two music videos by black musicians that were played frequently on the channel. 1999 also gave Prince his first Grammy nomination for the song International Lover.

Prince Becomes A Film Star with Purple Rain

1984 was considered the peak of Prince’s “Golden Years.” He had started a new band called The Revolution, which was a much more collaborative band than his former as the star took suggestions of his bandmates rather than taking full creative control as he was known for doing. The Revolution was another fusion of all genders and races that represented the style mixed genres Prince fused together. This is when he released his most ground-breaking album Purple Rain which sold 22 million copies worldwide, charted at no.1 for 24 weeks, and won “Best Original Score” at the 1985 Oscars. It produced colossal hits like When Doves Cry and Let’s Go Crazy. Prince took a very unique turn with the album when he also released a film of the same name (where Prince would make his acting debut) that the album would be a soundtrack for. Purple Rain was an interpretation of Prince’s life as it told the story of a man trying to make it big as a musician. The film was also a hit as it grossed over $68 million. However, the song did create a string of controversy especially for the song Darling Nicky which described a young girl masturbating in a hotel lobby. Senator Al Gore’s wife Tipper Gore was outraged by the obscenity, condemning Prince as a star. Consequently, the Parental Advisory label for explicit lyrics was introduced and plastered on Purple Rain.

Prince Never Stopped Releasing Music

Throughout the next few decades, Prince never slowed down with his music and continued pushing out successful albums. He frequently experimented with different sounds and released unique songs completely different from anything ever heard. Unfortunately, his career was cut short on April 21, 2016 when he passed away of an accidental fentanyl overdose at the age of 57. Prince’s death marked the end of an era of music that pushed through limitations time and time again. Today, Prince is remembered as one of the most iconic and influential musicians whose music encompasses more genres than any other that has ever existed.     

Tags: Prince | Purple Rain

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Emily Morenz

Author

Despite her younger age, Emily Morenz (Emo) is a serious 1960s/1970s enthusiast who is pretty much the Austin Powers of this decade. Through her all-vintage wardrobe, obsession with old time rock 'n' roll, and her mid century bedroom and 1,200+ vinyl collection you might think she just stepped out of a time machine. Emo plays the rare gems of the ‘60s and ‘70s on her radio show on OC’s 101.5 KOCI and teaches rock ‘n’ roll history on her podcast “The Rock & Roll Sweetheart.” When there's not a pandemic, she's rockin’ out with all the middle aged-men at every single classic rock concert happening around the town, and she will battle her away to front row and dance hard. Paul McCartney even once brought her up on stage to dance...while she was in a walrus costume. You also might find Emo surfing waves, skateboarding through a neighborhood, groovin' '60s gogo style, and pretending like she can play bass. And she's obsessed with peanut butter and corgis.